On Assignment

On Assignment

In Ethiopia’s Holy Heart
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

zoom in

Get the facts behind the frame in this online-only gallery. Pick an image and see the photographer’s technical notes.

Click to ZOOM IN >>

Click to ZOOM IN >>

Click to ZOOM IN >>

Click to ZOOM IN >>


A Kingdom by the Sea

Click to enlarge >>

By Candice S. Millard Photographs by George Steinmetz

Ethiopia’s Christians still flock to the intricate stone churches of the highlands where their faith arose.

Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

One legend says that the Ark of the Covenant came first to an isolated monastery called Tana Kirkos. The monastery, now home to some 40 Christian monks, stands at the tip of a long, stony peninsula on the eastern shore of Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake, which gives its waters to the Blue Nile. A two-and-a-half-hour boat ride brought me with my guide, Worku Sharew, to the site. We scrambled up a steep path cut into the peninsula’s cliff face and were met by a barefoot monk wearing a purple hat and carrying a long wooden prayer stick. With a toothless smile he led us to a low stone bench to await the arrival of Abba Baye, the keeper of Tana Kirkos’s traditions.

Wrapped in a brown robe of coarse cotton, Abba Baye walked slowly, leaning on his prayer stick and clutching a large brass cross. He blessed us with the cross, inviting us to press our foreheads against its cool metal, then sat beside us to tell Tana Kirkos’s version of the story of Menelik and the Ark of the Covenant.

When Menelik grew to be a man, he went to Jerusalem to meet his father, King Solomon. He stayed for three years, and when he left, Solomon ordered the firstborn sons of his noblemen to accompany him and sent the Ark of the Covenant to protect them. For safe keeping, Menelik brought the Ark to Tana Kirkos, where it stayed until King Ezana sent for it. The Ark is said to be hidden now in a small chapel in Aksum. It is guarded by one man—a monk named Abba Mekonen.

Known as the Atang, the Keeper of the Ark, Abba Mekonen is bone thin, with soft, watery eyes and a shy smile. I asked him if he was happy to be the Atang, which is a great honor and the most solemn post in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

“No,” he said. “This is not a job of easy happiness. It is a heavy burden.” Abba Mekonen, age 69, has shouldered this burden for three years and will continue to until his death. He never leaves the chapel compound, and he is the only person allowed to see the Ark. Abba Mekonen gently refused to explain this centuries-old tradition. But at Tana Kirkos when I had asked Abba Baye why I could not see the Ark, he had shrugged and said simply: “Who can look on the face of God?”

VIDEO Author Candice Millard filmed the festive reverence of Masqal, a day of purification and atonement for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians in this video of the event. Click Here

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
Real Player   WinMedia

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Ethiopia once had a sizable Jewish population known as the Beta Israel, or House of Israel. Theories about the Jews’ origins range from the legendary belief that they are descendants of Menelik I, said to be the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, to speculation that they are related to the lost tribe of Dan, Samson’s tribe. Scholars believe that Judaism had arrived in Ethiopia by the fourth century A.D., probably introduced by Jews from Egypt or the Arabian Peninsula. The Beta Israel likely didn’t emerge as a separate community until the 14th or 15th century. Denied land, they became weavers and ironsmiths—skills that helped them survive but branded them as dangerous sorcerers, further isolating them from Ethiopian Christians and Muslims. In the mid-1980s 7,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted via Sudan to Israel in an effort named Operation Moses. In 1991 thousands more fled to Israel during the final days of communist strongman Mengistu Haile Mariam. Today only a few practicing Beta Israel remain in Ethiopia.

—Candice S. Millard

Read the latest news about Ethiopia and explore a variety of web links about this fascinating African culture.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
Learn about the history and tenets of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith.

In Parentheses
Read a translation of the Kebra Nagast, Ethiopian chronicle of the legendary Queen of Sheba and her journey to Jerusalem to visit King Solomon.

Yumo Tours: Axum
Take a short photo tour of Ethiopia’s most famous sights.

Travel through Ethiopia’s neighbor, Sudan, and discover its ancient capital of Meroë, once conquered by Aksum kings.

Photographs by George Steinmetz
View more stunning photography by George Steinmetz. His work covers a wide range of topics, from indigenous people to technology, but without exception his ability to find a unique perspective makes for amazing photos.


Gerster, Georg. Churches in the Rock. Phaidon Press, 1970.

Hein, Ewald, and Brigitte Kleidt. Ethiopia—Christian Africa. Merlina-Verlag, 1999.

Henze, Paul B. Layers of Time, a History of Ethiopia. St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Munro-Hay, Stuart. Aksum, an African Civilization of Late Antiquity. Edinburgh University Press, 1991.

Phillipson, David W. Ancient Ethiopia. British Museum Press, 1991.


Morell, Virginia. “The Blue Nile: Ethiopia’s Sacred Waters,” National Geographic (December 2000), 2-29.

Kendall, Timothy. “Sudan’s Kingdom of Kush,” National Geographic (November 1990), 96-125.

Caputo, Robert. “Ethiopia: Revolution in an Ancient Empire,” National Geographic (May 1983), 614-645.

Gerster, Georg. “Searching Out Medieval Churches in Ethiopia’s Wilds,” National Geographic (December 1970), 856-884.

Harlan, Harry V. “A Caravan Journey Through Abyssinia: From Addis Ababa Through Lalibela, the Strange Jerusalem of Ethiopia, in Search of New Grains for American Farms,” National Geographic (June 1925), 613-663.

Crosby, Oscar T. “Abyssinia—The Country and People,” National Geographic (March 1901), 89-102.


© 2001 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy       Advertising Opportunities       Masthead

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE HOME Contact Us Forums Subscribe Contact Us Forums Subscribe